Why Polly Toynbee is wrong about God
There were echoes of the Grand Inquisitor in Toynbee's chilling tone. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images   

The trouble with writing anything about religion is that if you’re not religious, like me, you’re not a legitimate voice (what’s it got to do with you?); if you are religious, you’re not a legitimate voice either (you would say that, wouldn’t you?). It’s easier to steer well clear. So this huge, foundational aspect of life is often absent from – or misrepresented in – the media.

The British Social Attitudes survey is the big annual state-of-the-nation report, and this year the headline finding was that for the first time ever, more than half of the country (52%) now sees themselves as totally unreligious. The Church of England has collapsed most spectacularly (only 1% of 18-24 year olds now identify as Anglican, compared to 33% of over-75s) and hard atheism is on the rise, with 26% of the population now saying with confidence that they don’t believe in God, up from 10% 20 years ago.1

This wasn’t the area most newspapers focused on, though. They led with the juicier findings about gender identity and acceptance of gay relationships. The religion stuff was reported neutrally, matter-of-factly, as yet another confirmation of a trend we can’t do anything about. The decline of the Church now sits alongside Capitalism, Globalisation and Technology in the ‘too big to spend time fretting about’ category.

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There was one commentator, however, who did find something to say about the report. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was delighted with the findings and devoted her column to calling for any remaining role for the Church of England in public decision-making to be finally extinguished. She neatly managed to bring her political views into line with the good forces of rational correctness. “This visceral Brexit war between old and young,” she concluded, “has often felt like a conflict between reason and unreason, between economic fact and emotional national identity. But the BSA report reassuringly finds that beneath the surface of our present turmoil, superstition and unreason are on the retreat.” There was something of the grand inquisitor in her tone, chasing out the last vestiges of the forbidden faiths.

Nor do the authors of the BSA report itself, distinguished social scientists, attempt to hide their conclusion that the collapse in religious belief is a positive development in favour of a more scientific world view. They write that “scientific rationalism and liberal individualism” are taking the space left by religion, and that science and technology offer “an alternative way of interpreting and understanding the world”. The chapter on trust in science and scientists (it’s high) directly follows the chapter on declining religious belief – structurally cementing the idea that the one has been succeeded by the other.

Yet when you look at the questions posed in the survey, they don’t seem to be the most important ones. They are focused on organised religion and its structural role in society – and as such are tilted towards the obvious.

Looking around the world, religions bring more conflict than peace.” Do you agree? It would be hard for even the most ardent believer to make the case, in this context, that religion had brought more peace than conflict around the world. Or “Do you think that churches and religious organisations in this country have too much power or too little power?” Again, even die-hard Christians are not arguing for a theocracy, or that the Church should be granted new formal constitutional ‘powers’. I’m amazed that as many as 5% chose that option.

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If we wanted to be good social scientists, we would really be looking past the now-loaded word ‘religion’ to try to understand how these young, almost totally secular generations feel about the existential questions and their place in the universe. Is the picture painted by Polly Toynbee and the BSA authors, of a new generation confidently throwing off the last remaining shackles of religious superstition and marching cheerfully towards their rational futures, borne out by other evidence?

Three months ago, YouGov conducted a survey of 16-24 year olds for the children’s charity, Barnardo’s. In it the young respondents were asked whether they felt, in different ways, life was better or worse for them than it was for their parents’ generation. Overall, they were optimistic, understandably positive about what the modern world offers them in terms of physical health and life expectancy, education opportunities and overall prospects.

The survey didn’t mention the R word, but instead probed a number of aspects of life that religion traditionally had a role in. In this meaning-of-life department they weren’t so sanguine. Only 14% of British young people feel that they are better off than their parents in terms of “having a sense of purpose” (50% think they are worse off); only 13% feel they are better off than their parents in terms of “having a sense of belonging in your community” (59% think they are worse off); and only 11% feel they are better off than their parents in terms of “overall levels of happiness/good mental health” (69% think they are worse off).

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Now I’m not saying that the decline in religious faith causes these bleak numbers in any simple way, but it seems fair enough to bring them into the same conversation. The “scientific rationalism and liberal individualism” that the BSA report authors celebrate doesn’t seem to be doing such a great job of providing purpose, belonging or peace to young people.

In pure public policy terms, in terms of how we organise our society, it would be hard to think of a more fundamental change in all human history than the collapse of religion over the past 50-odd years. These recent generations are perhaps the first generations ever to be brought up without a meaning-of-life story, without respected elders outside the family to turn to for moral or existential matters, without common sacred rituals that situate them in their community. They are coming of age in a world without part of the architecture that has supported meaningful and fulfilled human lives for millennia. We now ask every young person, essentially, to devise their own moral and spiritual framework; no wonder they are anxious.

It doesn’t mean you want to turn the clock back if you acknowledge the absences left by religion; you don’t have to have faith yourself to recognise the wisdom and beauty of the traditions and the central role they played in our culture. This shouldn’t be an awkward topic that we leave to secular activists and evangelical Christians to battle out; finding ways to mitigate the absence of religion should be a public policy issue. The meaning of life is not a niche subject.

FOOTNOTES
  1. It is worth noting that Britain, and the West more widely, are going against the global trend. Overall, religion is on the rise, with both Christianity and Islam recording bumper increases in recent years.